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The Souls of Black Folk

By: William E. B. Du Bois

“Few books make history and fewer still become the foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people....” One such great work was The Souls of Black Folk by William EB Du Bois. Published in 1903, it is a powerful and hard-hitting view of sociology, race and American history. It became the cornerstone of the civil rights movement and when Du Bois attended the first National Negro Conference in 1909, he was already well-known as a proponent of full and unconditional equality for African Americans. In the following year, he became one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In fact, the word “colored” was suggested by Du Bois instead of “black” to include people of color everywhere in the world. Du Bois was appointed Director of Publicity and Research of the NAACP and his main duty was to edit and bring out NAACP's monthly journal The Crisis. The journal also served as a vehicle for his thoughts on socialism, black activism, unionization, inter-racial marriage, women's rights and combating racism in all spheres of life. The Souls of Black Folk is a series of essays on different subjects. The theories and ideas contained in it went on to become the key concepts that guided strategy and programs for civil rights protests in America. In this work, Du Bois discards Booker T Washington's concepts of “accommodation” of white supremacy and propounds that this would only lead to further oppression of African Americans. He also felt that human rights are to be enjoyed by all and neither “given” not “taken” and it is below a human being's dignity to beg for rights. The publication of this book had an immediate and devastating effect in that it polarized the movement into two distinctly different groups. The more conservative and less confrontational approach advocated by Washington was rejected by those who found Du Bois' more aggressive ideas better suited to their thinking. The writing style is extremely lyrical and poetic, with interesting turns of phrase. The ideas are thought provoking and stimulating, while presenting the reader with little known facts about African American history and sociology. Du Bois talks eloquently about “double consciousness,” the awareness that African Americans experience as citizens of America and also as a race apart. Du Bois speaks confidently as a proud American but also as one who is supremely conscious of the ills that plague American society. The Souls of Black Folk is an important historical document that provides great insights into the building of America as a nation.

Each chapter in The Souls of Black Folk begins with a pair of epigraphs: text from a poem, usually by a European poet, and the musical score of a spiritual, which Du Bois describes in his foreword ("The Forethought") as "some echo of haunting melody from the only American music which welled up from black souls in the dark past". Columbia University English and comparative literature professor Brent Hayes Edwards writes:

It is crucial to recognize that Du Bois ... chooses not to include the lyrics to the spirituals, which often serve to underline the arguments of the chapters: Booker T. Washington's idealism is echoed in the otherworldly salvation hoped for in "A Great Camp-Meeting in the Promised Land", for example; likewise the determined call for education in "Of the Training of Black Men" is matched by the strident words of "March On".

Edwards adds that Du Bois may have withheld the lyrics to mark a barrier for the reader, to suggest that black culture—life "within the veil"—remains inaccessible to white people.

In "The Forethought", Du Bois states:

"Leaving, then, the world of the white man, I have stepped within the Veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses,—the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls." He concludes with the words: "...need I add that I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the Veil?"


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William Edward Burghardt Du was an American sociologist, socialist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois grew u...

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